NEW YORK – At Sotheby’s, as at all other auction houses, it is the auctioneer who personifies the glamorous, high-stakes world of the international art market. Standing at the rostrum, calling out bids in increments that sometimes increase by the millions, and then announcing with the bang of a gavel that a coveted masterpiece will now have a new owner, the auctioneer is often perceived to be the central player in the drama that plays out in this very public forum. But as those who travel in this world know well, the auction is simply the climax of a very long process that unfolds behind the scenes: in the homes of private collectors; at VIP openings of museums, galleries, and art fairs; and, ultimately, in board rooms. At the highest levels of the art market, an agreement to bring a very valuable object to auction (or to offer through a private sale) involves a dizzying array of issues ranging from the emotional to the financial, and a vast team that includes art historians and lawyers, designers and bankers, publicists and insurance agents. Pulling all the strands of a major deal together requires the skill of an orchestra conductor – coupled with the charm of a diplomat.
MARC PORTER AT SOTHEBY'S.
No one has mastered these disparate skills better than Marc Porter, who will join Sotheby’s this January as Chairman of its Fine Art Division and leader of business development strategy on a global basis. News of the move trickled out more than a year ago, as Porter was finishing up a storied 25-year career at Christie’s, where he had served as both Chairman and President of Christie’s America. As principal deal-maker, he played a crucial role in securing many of the most important works of art and private collections to appear on the market in recent memory, including those of Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Ellsworth, the dean of Chinese art dealers. Along the way, Porter, a graduate of Yale Law School, transformed the company in many ways, launching a successful global private sales division, pioneering online sales, and mediating a number of high-profile restitution cases.
As often happens when an executive moves from one company to another, Porter took a one year “garden leave.” As he embarks on the next phase of his career, at Sotheby’s, this art world maestro took time to reflect on his time off and his general thoughts about the current state of the ever-fascinating art market.
During your garden leave, you became a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden, which seems incredibly appropriate. Can you tell us about your interest in horticulture?
Plants and gardens have been one of my primary interests since childhood. I grew up near Philadelphia, which is a region with a very deep and serious history of garden making and academic institutions devoted to botany and plant science. Joining the board of the New York Botanical Garden was the culmination of years of visiting the Garden. It is in the Bronx (20 minutes by Metro North, with its own stop) and in addition to its pleasure gardens, collections of trees and perennials and fantastic greenhouses for collections of more tender plants, it is one of the most important scientific institutions in the nation.
AERIAL VIEW OF THE NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN. PHOTO BY ROBERT BENSON.
How else did you occupy yourself over the last year?
I spent almost two months in Istanbul. I wanted to explore a city I'd visited several times but understood was too complex to begin to understand it without a more significant time-commitment. Earlier in my life, I'd had the same opportunity to spend two months in Rome – this was the Orthodox and Muslim other half. The reward for me is a better understanding of the Byzantine, Ottoman and Classical worlds. I hadn't foreseen how much I would learn by living in the epicenter of the East-West divide at this most volatile of times.
AN AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER, PORTER TOOK SCORES OF PHOTOS DURING HIS TWO MONTHS IN ISTANBUL, INCLUDING THIS VIEW OF THE SANCAKLAR MOSQUE, DESIGNED BY EMRE AROLAT ARCHITECTS.
Over your 25 year career at Christie's, you had an amazing perch from which to view and participate in the astounding growth of the international art market. What are your thoughts about where the market is heading?
There are almost always two factors in thinking about the market: 1) How much a global market influences the value and appeal of a particular object, and 2) How purely regional is the appeal of an object. These themes, writ large in the political events of the last year, assert themselves on the art market itself. My belief is that the global demand for certain artists and works of art is the most potent force but, that said, regional tastes and interests create very vibrant smaller markets that are almost as powerful.
You were involved in some of the most storied single owner auctions ever, including the Robert Ellsworth and Elizabeth Taylor collections. What is it about great collectors that excites the market?
This is immutable: quality and provenance. The skill is presenting any collection to the market so that the balance is properly understood.
With the Elizabeth Taylor sale, you also initiated Christie's first online auction. Since then, online sales have become an increasingly important factor in the market. Where do you see online sales heading?
Online sales will have an increasingly important role in the market. The art market is part of international commerce and cultural exchange – not somehow separate and detached. Of course, connoisseurship, relationships, and “communion” with other collectors will remain at the core of the business, especially with respect to objects that are not multiples or where there is a large transactional volume in similar objects.
ACTRESS ELIZABETH TAYLOR SMILING WHILE SITTING ON A SOFA AT HER HOME IN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, APRIL 1987. (PHOTO BY MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES).
You were President of Christie's Japan for 10 years, and oversaw historic sales of Chinese and Asian art. And you are joining Sotheby's as the participation of Chinese collectors reaches an all-time high in the business. What are your thoughts about the role that Asia will play in the art market in the years ahead?
Asia is as important to the art business as America was in the last century. The growth of great fortunes and the concomitant growth in education and leisure provide enormous opportunities.
Having taken a year off from the art business, what makes you most excited about jumping back into this world?
I'm most excited about looking at interesting objects every day and being in an organisation where exploring and understanding culture are the driving forces.
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